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Opinion | Putin Has Been Isolated for Two Years. Now He’s Taking Russia With Him.

This ritual session, which was broadcast by all Russian TV channels, was supposed to smear all of the country’s top officials with blood. But it also showed that Mr. Putin is completely fed up with his old guard: His contempt for them was clear. He seemed to relish their sniveling, as when he publicly humiliated Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, who started mumbling and tried to quickly correct himself, agreeing with whatever Mr. Putin was saying. These are nothing but yes men, the president seemed to say.

As I have reported for years, some members of Mr. Putin’s entourage have long worked to convince him that he is the only person who can save Russia, that every other potential leader would only fail the country. This was the message that the president heard going back to 2003, when he contemplated stepping down, only to be told by his advisers — many of whom also had backgrounds in the K.G.B. — that he should stay on. A few years later, Mr. Putin and his entourage were discussing “Operation Successor” and Dmitri Medvedev was made president. But after four years, Mr. Putin returned to replace him. Now he has really and truly come to believe that only he can save Russia. In fact, he believes it so much that he thinks the people around him are likely to foil his plans. He can’t trust them, either.

And now here we are. Isolated and under sanctions, alone against the world, Russia looks as though it is being remade in its president’s image. Mr. Putin’s already very tight inner circle will only draw in closer. As the casualties mount in Ukraine, the president appears to be digging in his heels; he says that the sanctions on his country are a “declaration of war.”

Yet at the same time he seems to believe that complete isolation will make a large part of the most unreliable elements leave Russia: During the past two weeks, the protesting intelligentsia — executives, actors, artists, journalists — have hurriedly fled the country; some abandoned their possessions just to get out. I fear that from the point of view of Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk, this will only make Russia stronger.

Mikhail Zygar (@zygaro) is the former editor in chief of the independent TV news channel Dozhd and the author of “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin.”

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